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Republicans Need a Hero

Friday, September 11, 2009 at 12:49 PM EDT

Illustration by Matt Wuerker, for

President Obama is the Democrat’s hero. Not only is he the popularly elected president of the United States, but he is also a talented, intelligent, and articulate leader. Since both parties are such big tents, people tend to use the heroes of the party to define it. Obama gives powerful definition to the Democratic Party. The hero of a party is the person who embodies the most valued characteristics of the party and who represents it to the country.

Who is the hero for the Republican Party? There isn’t one. The last real hero was George W. Bush, but his popularity and hero efficacy sank abruptly after his reelection in 2004. John McCain had the potential to be the Republican hero. He was widely admired by centrists and even Democrats. But his moderate image failed to resonate with his own parties’ base, and at the same time, he was dragged to the right which damaged his wider reputation. When he lost the election by millions of votes, he lost the potential to be the Republican hero.

It isn’t reasonable to expect the non-presidential party to have a single hero with as much power as the president. No Republican will be able to assume moral leadership over that party in the same way that Obama does with the Democratic Party. However, effective non-presidential leaders have emerged before. Tip O’Neil, Newt Gingrich, and Nancy Pelosi (to a lesser extent) all represented their party during times when it did not control the White House.

Since Obama’s election, Republicans have fragmented into several groups following multiple potential heroes. Unfortunately for them, none of the hero-wannabes who have recruited followings and grabbed headlines in the past eight months are viable long-term political leaders for the Republican Party.

Instead of speaking with (at least somewhat) united voices, Republicans have been represented on the national stage by a hodge podge of ineffective politicians and ideologues.

  • Sarah Palin justifies her completely made up “death panel” accusation because “it rings true with a lot of Americans.” She went from being a token female candidate to recruit mdoerate Clinton supporters to the most absurd and divisive Republican leader in the country.
  • Dick Cheney, who remained underground (literally?) for so much of Bush’s presidency, is fighting hard for the unappealing side of the torture debate.
  • Rush Limbaugh commands an impressive and loyal audience, but remains distant from the mainstream of the country. Republicans who fail to pay him deference are harangued by his listeners until the issue pathetic formal apologies. Limbaugh is like the mafia boss of the party.

Numerous other individuals may not intend to represent their party as heroes, but inadvertently do so by dominating headlines.

  • Joe Wilson was an insignificant ultra conservative rural representative before he shouted “you lie” at the president during the recent joint session of Congress. Since his outburst, he has kind of apologized, but he qualified his apology by saying that he had to say something and by sticking to his inaccurate claim.
  • Orly Taitz is one of the leaders of the “birther” movement, which wouldn’t be perceived as so obnoxious and racist if it had any basis in reality.
  • TEA baggers, birthers, and town hall protesters in general represent the worst elements of the Republican Party. They are typically low-class, low-income, low-education rural white men who are angry, irrational, and offensive.

Perhaps Republicans will find their hero and their voice in their 2012 presidential candidate. The country would certainly be better served by a reasonable opposition party than by a laughably ineffective minority that exists now. One of the biggest problems that will result from letting so many wild elements of the party gain control now is that it will make it harder for a reasonable centrist leader to emerge in 2012. McCain’s failure to bring in the more staunchly conservative elements of his party demonstrates a much deeper problem and one that will haunt GOP politicians in coming elections.